Selin Tekin and Nihan Albayrak-Aydemir
The city of Kahramanmaras in Turkey was hit with 7.7. and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes on 6 February, which majorly affected more than 10 cities in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria. As of now, it was reported that 35,418 people lost their lives, over 11,000 buildings (including roads, bridges, hospitals, and an airport) collapsed and destroyed, and many more people were injured, left homeless, and lost their loved ones. Those who survived the earthquake are now at further risk in the cold and in urgent need of accommodation, food, and hygienic supplies.
Disasters are social and political events that disrupt the functioning of communities and result in human, material, economic and environmental losses – regardless of their cause being nature or humans. Although it is a common belief that people affected by a disaster passively wait for others’ (especially officials’) help after a disaster, what happened in the aftermath of the Kahramanmaras proved the opposite – it was bottom-up solidarity of everyone involved.
Since the first moment of the disaster, social media, Twitter especially, has played a critical role in the survival of many people after the earthquake as well as in the organisation of relief efforts. While authorities have been criticised by some residents in the disaster area for a lack or delayed response to the region, those in critical conditions still refused to become passive victims and used social media to save themselves and their loved ones from the rubble. They messaged others for help and posted under hashtags #ENKAZALTINDA (under the rubble) or #ENKAZALTINDAYIM (I’m under the rubble). In the meantime, people outside followed these hashtags and got organised informally and strategically. AHBAP, a non-governmental voluntary platform led by the rock singer Haluk Levent, has been extremely instrumental in leading these efforts and becoming the first point of contact for the whole country.
Research show us that people come together and support each other when they face a disaster or an emergency – and so they did for this earthquake. Those who are from different cities in Turkey and those who are living in different parts of the world have come together, got organised, developed strategies, and started campaigns. They acted as one and acted quickly – instead of passively waiting for help to arrive in the area from somewhere at some point. They have not only formed a community but also strategically reached out to larger communities and used their own networks to reach more people.
What is a disaster?
Let’s be clear from the beginning: What we witness here is an example of a human-made disaster and people are right to be angry and disappointed. It was our job to understand nature and take cautions based on scientific expectations for not turning natural events into disasters. If those in power fail to do so by disregarding warnings of the scientists, not taking lessons from previous similar disasters, and prioritising profit over public health and safety, then, it wouldn’t be wrong to identify the cause of a disaster as being political.
Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time to prevent or at least lessen the terrible consequences of these earthquakes. What we can do now is to focus on supporting those affected by these consequences, and not just become passive bystanders to this tragedy – if we know how to help in any way, we must take action.
But what can (and should) we really do in the aftermath of a major disaster, and how we should go about doing it? Does our help really matter? Are there things we should consider while providing help and support? There remains a plethora of questions in people’s mind who wants to help effectively but don’t know how.
Starting with small but critical steps
The priority response in every emergency is to rescue lives. This depends on the actual presence of individuals in the disaster zone and their physical efforts for search, rescue, and relief. However, this cannot always be possible for everyone. Ideally, professionals, such as doctors and rescue teams, should be the first to respond and they should be followed by volunteers who have physical and psychological first-aid or search-and-rescue training, experience in working in disaster zones, and psychological resilience to cope with the experience of witnessing tragedies first-hand. In reality, however, the public are usually the first ‘responders’ who arrive in the disaster zone before the professional teams. Among these many individuals, learning from the expertise and experience of those who have a sense of familiarity with the area and culture is also vital for the effective use of human power.
It’s not true that you cannot help unless you’re there. We can use our own skills for developing tactical responses to a disaster. For example, a group of Turkish engineers came together and in just a day, built a website from scratch where all the useful information about the earthquake is collated, including the locations and conditions of those under the rubble, the places that offer safe and free accommodation, and a map of places destroyed in the earthquake. Meanwhile, Turkish academics and university students studying or working in the UK started a fundraiser to help their home country from afar.
Although technical or professional skills are immensely valuable, they’re not the only option to help those affected. Everyone can make meaningful contributions by making donations. In fact, it is imperative to secure strategic and sustainable charitable donations in the aftermath of a disaster as many people will need continuing support in the long run to rebuild their lives. We can especially put our efforts into raising money for those in need if we are far away from the disaster zone. In doing so, it is important to collaborate with local disaster campaigns and prioritise monetary donations as donations of goods come with additional costs, such as coordination of of sorting, allocation, and distributipn. On the other hand, monetary donations can be used based on the specific needs and conditions of the disaster communities.
When it comes to donating, it is of course hard to decide where to send money. In the case of a disaster, the most efficient way to choose is to listen to the advice of the disaster locals and check out the places they suggest. Governmental organisations (e.g. AFAD, Kızılay) may be better at handling the bureaucracy of the donations while non-governmental organisations (e.g. AHBAP) might be better at organising and responding to the individual needs of the local communities in need. If the suggestions do not relieve our concerns, we can always go with international organisations (e.g., disasters emergency committee) that we already trust and donate to their disaster appeal. In any way, strong cooperation between governmental and non-governmental organisations, and also between national and international organisations, is necessary to provide a fast and effective emergency response.
Acting as a community
Disasters are collective tragedies and require collective responses for coping. Unfortunately, many survivors might lose their loved ones, social connections, and personal relationships (in other words, their social capital) and their sense of self might be damaged. Thus, providing psychosocial support (or in simpler words, psychologically and socially connecting with survivors) is immensely helpful. Research also shows that community members who are affected by a disaster can share a social identity and organise an informal way of support, which can in turn improve the recovery of those affected by the disaster. Having a sense of community in these ‘disaster communities’ can motivate people to act as one and empower themselves as a community.
Sometimes people from outside can also join the process of community empowerment. In doing so, it is crucial to implement a bottom-up approach to collective healing by acting based on the needs of the communities and having cultural sensitivities (rather than imposing a top-down approach with an ideal way of healing in mind).
Organising psychosocial training events and support groups in places where people can have a sense of belonging and a sense of social identity (for example, in communal places like parks and schools or in places of worship like mosques, synagogues, and churches), collaborating with community leaders (such as teachers and store owners) while providing psychosocial support, and creating safe spaces where disaster community members can come together and freely share their emotions with others (for example, their sadness and anger but also their hopes) should be considered while working with disaster communities in route to collective recovery.
Disasters can affect different parts of communities in different ways because of the systemic inequalities that are already existent in communities before a disaster. The tragic effects of the earthquake will, for instance, be different for Syrian refugees. As happened in previous disasters in different parts of the world (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, Grenfell Tower fire), people who are disproportionately affected by a disaster (such as refugees or immigrants) will face hate speech and discrimination and they will be blamed for looting of the affected areas.
It is vital to support people from marginalised backgrounds in the disaster community for true community healing. For example, Syrian refugees should be treated with an idiosyncratic approach that factors in what they have gone through in the last decade, and organisations (such as Maya Foundation and Media and Migration Association) that help Syrian refugees after the earthquake should be supported accordingly.
The Turkish Psychologists Association and World Human Relief also come to the forefront in working with disaster communities for providing psychosocial support to the general public. They provide training to their members and learn the culture of the disaster communities before implementing any support strategy. Expanding these considerations to include the needs and conditions of the marginalised communities in their strategy development, therefore, appears as another crucial step in ensuring an effective response to community healing.
Seeking social justice
There comes a point after some disasters where the fight for human rights begins. Survivors, bereaved families, and their supporters might organise post-disaster justice campaigns against those who are responsible for the tragic outcomes that could have been prevented. They can actualise their social identities and empower themselves by engaging in such collective actions. They can take strategic steps, such as reaching out to allies from wider communities from different cities and countries, in the process of collective empowerment.
Because disasters are usually the results of systemic failures, disaster communities may not be the only ones who want to seek justice. Those who are not directly affected by the disaster might want to engage in post-disaster justice actions under the identity of ‘a sense of injustice’. However, organising the actions based on the needs of primarily-affected groups is critical when building strategies for justice seeking. If those who are not directly affected by the disaster don’t cater for the needs and demands of those who have been directly affected by the disaster, they might do more harm than good even though their intentions are good. For example, if community members in the aftermath of the disaster are not ready to start the justice-seeking process, any action to do so from outside might appear as colonising, exclusive, or even opportunistic.
It is possible to achieve social justice if we can be sensitive and strategic. For this, we first need to listen to the needs and demands of the disaster communities and we should start seeking justice when they are ready to do so. We then need to organise inclusive events that can bring together different parts of society together and give a united and clear message to the public and the authorities about what we seek to achieve.
Post-disaster justice campaign in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire sets a good example of coming together under a ‘justice-seeking identity’. Those campaigners followed the lead of the affected communities, organised inclusive events that are open to everyone, such as the Silent Walk, prevented propaganda by any groups, and refused political party involvement. This allowed them to reach and involve larger numbers of supporters from different parts of the country and to create an open space for everyone to be included and feel supported.
Disrupting politics or getting disrupted by it?
The main point needs to be clear that people from public are stronger when they solidarize, act as one, and build their strategies bottom-up. The message to people of power and politicians is that ‘don’t reduce people to helpless victims; respect and enable their agency; and don’t accept politics of victimhood in Turkey and elsewhere…
The earthquakes in Turkey happened in the middle of heated discussions and concerns about the upcoming election, which was expected to take place in June 2023 under normal conditions. Politics did not stop when a disaster hit the country. People who are affected by the disaster and their supporters from wider communities criticised the government and their allies for using earthquake to promote their power and make ideological points while the opposition and their allies were criticised for directing their efforts into blaming those who lost their lives in the earthquake for their own deaths by accusing them for voting for the current government, instead of supporting those affected. Either way, politicians from both sides seem to fail at their first response to a major emergency in the country, and individuals seem to pick up after them.
Raising the voices of those who faced injustices, rather than the voices of a certain group (like political parties), is how bottom-up empowerment works and it is the right way to go – but will we be able to see this happen in the aftermath of this major earthquake in Turkey? Will communities be able to put their political (or otherwise) interests and agenda behind them for coming together in the name of justice? Most importantly, will politicians realise that the aftermath of a disaster is not a good time to make election propaganda? Time will show.
If you want to help:
Dr Selin Tekin, Lecturer in Psychology at Karabük Üniversity in Turkey,
Dr Nihan Albayrak-Aydemir, Postdoctoral Researcher in Psychology at Open University in the U.K.
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Deniz Bozunoğullari for helping us with reaching the non-government organizations who support refugees in Turkey.
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